11 November 2011

Civitella in Val di Chiana

Orders from Above?

18th June 1944
29th June 1944

It is cold, dark December. December 29th.  1170.  Canterbury. It is evening and vespers are being sung. At the door of the north transept Thomas Beckett encounters some frightened monks; he orders them back to the choir. They withdraw and he enters the church, but Reginald Fitzurse, William de Tracy, Hugh de Morville, and Richard le Bret appear behind him in the dim light. The monks slam the door on them but in their confusion they shut out several of their own brothers, who begin beating on the door.  Fitzurse flings down his axe and draws his sword. "You owe me fealty and submission!" exclaims the archbishop. Fitzurse shouts back, "I owe no fealty contrary to the King!" and knocks off Thomas's cap. Thomas covers his face and calls aloud to God and the saints. Tracy strikes a blow, which is intercepted by the arm of the monk Grim, but which grazes Thomas’s head and blood trickles into his eyes. He wipes the stain away and calls out, "Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit!" Grim’s eyewitness account continues: "Then he received a second blow on the head but still stood firm. At the third blow he fell on his knees and elbows, offering himself a living victim, and saying in a low voice, 'For the Name of Jesus and the protection of the Church I am ready to embrace death.' Then the third knight inflicted a terrible wound as he lay, by which the sword was broken against the pavement, and the crown which was large was separated from the head. The fourth knight prevented any from interfering so that the others might freely perpetrate the murder. As to the fifth, no knight but that clerk who had entered with the knights, that a fifth blow might not be wanting to the martyr who was in other things like to Christ, he put his foot on the neck of the holy Priest and precious martyr, and, horrible to say, scattered his brain and blood over the pavement, calling out to the others, 'Let us away, knights; he will rise no more.'”   The King’s supposed words, “Who will rid me of this troublesome Priest?” echo in the minds of the murderers, who now rush away through the cloisters, waving their swords and shouting, "The King's men! The King's men!" The cathedral fills with people unaware of the catastrophe, and a thunderstorm breaks overhead, as if God himself is angry. The archbishop's body lies in the middle of the transept, and for a time no one dares approach it.

We visit Canterbury to see our daughter, a student at the University of Kent, and we stand in silence at the place of martyrdom.  Time does not diminish the fact of killing.  The changes of the centuries cannot erase or excuse such spilling of blood. But can such misunderstanding, or mis-command, ever be forgiven?  Should we not have learned from Henry’s penance and the footsteps of the pilgrims?

The Via Francigena is the 9th century name for the Pilgrim Route from Canterbury to Rome, which is still taken by pilgrims. Previously it had been called the Lombard Way, after the Germanic conquerors of Italy in the 6th and 7th Centuries. The Lombards gave us Lombardy but their name derives from Langobards, or Longbeards, and they were kind of land-locked Vikings who may have originated in Sweden but progressed through the Elbe valley in Germany, then settling in the Danube valley in the 5th Century. They conquered Byzantine Italy in AD 568 and established a Lombard Kingdom in Italy, later named Kingdom of Italy, which lasted until 774, when it was conquered by the Franks. Lombard nobles did however continue to rule parts of the Italian peninsula well into the 11th century and they constructed a series of castles which still dominate the landscape. Those were not peaceful times, and some of their leaders were exceptionally violent, behaving in the worst traditions of barbarian conquerors; murdering landlords and seizing their lands, plundering the countryside and taking the cities for themselves.


One small trace of that German occupation can be found in the village of Civitella della Chiana, or Civitella in Val di Chiana, which is in the Province of Arezzo.  It sits on the top of a hill at about 500 metres above sea level, overlooking the valley towards Arezzo and controlling the north/south road. The population currently is about eight thousand, and until her death in 2006 it was the home, for thirty years, of the author Dame Muriel Spark, who was made an honorary citizen in 2005.

This small town dates back to Etrusco-Roman times, but took its current shape under the Lombards, who built the Rocca and the fortified walls.  It was damaged and tussled over during the wars between the Ghibellines and the Guelfs and ultimately was the subject of a brutal and destructive attack on 29th June 1944, along with the neighbouring villages of Cornia and San Pancrazio.  While many of the inhabitants were at an early mass to celebrate the feast of St Peter and St Paul, troops of the Hermann Göering Division moved in and killed 115 people in Civitella, 58 in Cornia and 71 in San Pancrazio. In 1963, because of this, the Comune of Civitella in Val di Chiana was awarded the “medaglia d'oro al valore civile.”

Earlier this year we chanced upon Civitella in Val di Chiana for no profound reason. We were en route between il Casentino (where we visited Camaldoli) and Monte Amiata. The Italian Slowfood organisation suggested a Bed and Breakfast, L’Antico Borgo, (http://www.antborgo.it/) which was attached to a restaurant in Civitella and, since we also wanted to review Piero della Francesca’s frescos in Arezzo, this fitted perfectly with our itinerary.

It was quiet when we arrived in the afternoon – not even our host was to be found.  We parked near the monumental Cisterna (collected rainwater used to be the only source of water) in front of the Church, and strolled down the main street.

A doorway under the arcade was open and a small group of people were busy sorting out an audio-visual display.  We went in, and found a small room, La Sala della Memoria, completely filled with mementoes and newspaper clippings, artefacts and pictures, all of which together told the story of June 29th 1944.  The room was inaugurated in 2004, for the sixtieth anniversary of the massacre, “Per non dimenticare questo tragico e doloroso evento che sconvolse l’intera comunità e cambiò tanti aspetti della vita quotidiana e quindi ricordare alle generazioni future gli errori e gli orrori di ogni guerra, con la speranza di diffondere un messaggio di pace.[1]  On October 7th, 2004, the then Presidente della Repubblica, Carlo Azelio Ciampi, visited Civitella and signed the guest book here.

In the piazza in front of the church there is a memorial to the victims of the massacre, which included the Parish Priest and all the men who had been in the church that morning, who were all shot in the head, in groups.  There was one survivor from the intended victims, a young seminarian, Don Daniele Tiezzi, who was born in Civitella in 1926.  He dug his elbow into the fat stomach of the officer in charge and leapt for freedom.  He was shot, and fell into a doorway, but was left for dead and lived to tell the tale.  His vivid account was recorded on 24th August 1993 and is visible on youtube, at:


His father and brother died in the massacre.

Other victims were killed in their homes when the soldiers concluded their exercise with grenades and machine guns and burning. Nearby there is another plaque mounted on the wall, this time to commemorate one who helped the survivors when the allies arrived. 

It was still quiet.  The occasional vehicle came and went, our host arrived and showed us to our beautiful room in a reconstructed palazzo on the square, which rises above an old Olive Mill which is now one of Civitella’s two restaurants.

It was strange to sleep there, on the site of such a comparatively recent slaughter.  1944 was a year of unbelievable destruction for central Italy, with the front line gradually creeping northward, daily air raids pounding roads and key points, and villages being reduced to rubble by artillery from both sides.  65,000 partisans and 153,100 civilians died throughout Italy in the war, with an estimated 3,650 victims in Tuscany alone, many of whom were killed as part of the anti-resistance campaign. 

The Resistance movement in Italy did not start until after the invasion of Sicily and the fall of Mussolini in July 1943, when Nazism became the enemy of the Italians, rather than the ally.  The trouble for Civitella really began in Via Rasella, in Rome, on March 23rd 1944.  It was the 25th anniversary of Mussolini’s founding of the Fascist party and 156 men of the 11th Company of the German 3rd Battalion of the SS Polizei Regiment 'Bozen' were marching to their barracks when a bomb which had been placed in a road-sweeper’s cart exploded, killing 28 and injuring 60.  The number of deaths quickly rose to 33.  The German Commandant of Rome, General Kurt Malzer, who was said to be drunk and incandescent with rage at the time, ordered the immediate arrest of the 200 people who lived on that street.  When Hitler heard of the attack, he ordered 30, then 50, civilians to be shot for each of the victims.  With the intervention of Field Marshal Albert Kesselring (Commander-in-Chief of the German Troops in Italy) this number was subsequently reduced to 10 for each victim, but nevertheless by 8.00pm the following day 335 Italian citizens had been taken to a series of caves on the Via Ardeatina and shot in the back of the head.

This first reprisal for a partisan attack led to many others, as Rome fell at the beginning of June.  The policy of taking severe action against partisans was endorsed by Kesselring, following a proclamation by General Harold Alexander (Supreme Allied Commander in Italy from September 1943 to May 1945) on the 9th June who called on partisans to carry out acts of sabotage.  The proclamation, which was broadcast by radio, called for an avoidance of outright battle, but a concentration on incursions into small command centres and hitting transport columns in the night.  It also recommending killing Germans but in a way which allowed for rapid flight and the ability to strike again.  In response Kesselring ordered a “Reorganization of the Struggle Against Bandits,” on June 17, 1944. This order unambiguously sanctioned the use of terror as a means of retaliation and gave carte blanche to the military to treat partisans as “bandits” rather than as organised service personnel. According to the leadership’s orders, bandits were to be exterminated and destroyed.  He also ordered that, if attacked, his troops should respond immediately without any regard to the presence of others.  And, most significantly, he ordered that after an attack civilians should be arrested and their houses burned.  These orders from above, together with a “scorched earth” policy and frustration at an inability to gather workers to create defence installations, caused untold suffering as the German army withdrew through Tuscany and to the north.

When we came to leave Civitella, our host presented us with a book, entitled, Civitella 18 Giugno 1944 – Eutanasia di una data [2]. I assumed, without thinking at that moment, that this was an account of the massacre, but then, realising that the massacre had happened on June 29th, I found that there was much more to unravel about this story.

Sunday, June 18th 1944 was an overcast day[3] in central Italy. On that day a group of German soldiers from the 4th Parachute Division were in the area and four of them decided to go into the dopolavoro[4] in Civitella. They were friendly to the local people and even gave the 14 year old Alberto Rossi a pocketful of sweets. They put their weapons down and played cards, and drank wine, until about 8.00pm. When they had finished their game three of them listened to the radio while the other went into the next room to watch the locals playing cards.

At 9.00pm five members of the local partisan group led by Edoardo Succhiello and accompanied by Vasco Caroti, came into the room and ordered the three seated Germans to put their hands up.  One of them reacted by reaching for his bayonet and Dario Polletti opened fire with his machine gun, killing two immediately and leaving the other to die a few days later. The remaining German took his wounded companion away while the partisans and most of the villagers fled.

The following day the Germans delivered an ultimatum to the villagers to give up the names of those responsible.  This was not accepted.  On the 20th the Parish Priest conducted the funerals of the two men who had been killed.

On June 23rd, close to the nearby village of San Pancrazio, there was action between partisans and the Germans. 

From the 24th to the 28th the villagers began to return to their homes in Civitella, reassured in part by the Parish Priest who affirmed that there would not be any reprisal.

At 7.00am on the 29th, while the village was celebrating mass in honour of Saints Peter and Paul, a unit of the Hermann Göering division arrived in the village with armoured vehicles and systematically executed 115 people, principally men and boys. The operation, which included burning houses, took four hours. On the same day 71 civilians were killed in San Pancrazio and 58 in Cornia[5]. In charge on that day was Captain Heinz Barz. The Hermann Göering division was, from January 1944, nominally a parachute brigade of the Luftwaffe, but its men were volunteers selected principally from the Hitler Youth movement; they tended to be very young, and were ideologically fanatical supporters of Nazism. From March 1944 the division had been employed in a number of anti-partisan operations in Tuscany. After June 29th, they took part in massacres at Castelnuovo del Sabbioni and at Meleto, but then they were transferred to the Eastern Front on July 5th.

Two weeks later British troops arrived at Civitella. There is horrific Imperial War Museum archive film of what they found, which can be seen on youtube:


After the war, in 1946, a military court sentenced a former SS commander to life in prison for the Ardeatine Caves massacre. But plans for further trials were soon shelved and silence fell as the Cold War dampened enthusiasm for tracking down Nazi war criminals. "There was a growing reluctance to embarrass Germany," said Dr Paolo Pezzino, a teacher of contemporary history at the University of Pisa.  "International justice took a back seat to realpolitik.  The Communists were now the enemy." 


So, in Civitella, where the pain was still very real, the link between the action of the partisans on June 18th and the massacre of the villagers on June 29th remained very clear.  In some sense this also reflected the political scene, as partisans had been, in general, on the left (and therefore aligned with the communists) and the citizens who aligned with the church were perhaps more to the right, perhaps Christian Democrats (and possibly in sympathy with fascism). 

On April 28th 1950 the newspaper Avanti published what was intended to be a clarification by Edoardo Succhiello about the event which took place in Civitella on June 18th.  In this he claimed that they had been called to the village because the Germans were causing trouble; he said there was a fight in the bar; and he claimed that the local people had disguised the surviving German so that he escaped.

On May 24th a reaction by a group of the inhabitants of Civitella was published in the newspaper Il Mattino dell’Italia Centrale. In this, with the preface that they did not wish to diminish the patriotic work of the partisans, they denounced certain falsehoods in Succhiello’s account, asking why the partisans had come to kill Germans in the village in the first place, why they had not stayed to defend the village afterwards, and why they did not return to help the innocent?

Succhiello’s response to this was to take Il Mattino to court for defamation of character.  The trial lasted from May 28th 1951 to February 9th 1953 when it concluded without judgement, except that Succhiello was ordered to pay costs.  If anything, this increased the bitterness of the rift between the partisans and the people of Civitella, and public memory continued to link the killing of the German soldiers on June 18th with the extreme violence of June 29th.

On December 23rd 1993 Edoardo Succhiello and Dario Polletti, whose wife Modesta was among those killed on June 29th 1944, recorded an interview about their memories of what happened.  This is now viewable on youtube:

Then, in 1994, a forgotten archive at the military tribunal in Rome was discovered, which revealed evidence on hundreds of wartime atrocities, documented by Allied and Italian investigators.  The discovery of the so-called "cabinet of shame" triggered public outcry - and a renewed call for justice.

"I felt I had a moral obligation to provide answers," said Marco De Paolis, Italy's chief military prosecutor at the time, who played a key role in reopening war crime cases. "And to bring a sense of justice to hundreds of people who had been waiting over 50 years."  Since 2002, De Paolis has tried more than a dozen cases, several resulting in convictions.

On October 12th 2006, the Italian military Court of La Spezia sentenced in absentia an 82 year old German citizen, Max Josef Milde, the only surviving member of the unit, to life imprisonment for his role in the Civitella massacre. He was sentenced for the murder of 203 of the men, women and children in San Pancrazio, Civitella and Cornia, pursuant Article 185 of the Italian Military Penal Code in time of war. The Court also upheld the complaints for compensation filed by the relatives of the victims against Germany, ordering the German Government to pay one million euros (£787,000) to the relatives of nine victims in the town of Civitella. "When the sentence was pronounced, I felt the cry of justice," recalled Sauro Testi, who accompanied survivors and family members to the sentencing. "The state had finally responded."

On October 21st 2008, the Italian Supreme Court (Corte suprema di cassazione) upheld the Tribunal’s decision that the massacre of Civitella amounted to a war crime, and that no immunity from jurisdiction could be accorded to Germany for such acts. This case was part of a series of cases in which the Italian Courts developed a firm jurisprudence excluding State immunity in the case of violations of basic human rights or international crimes.

On December 22nd 2008, Germany filed an application instituting proceedings against Italy before the International Court of Justice, arguing that since 2004 “Italian judicial bodies have repeatedly disregarded the jurisdictional immunity of Germany as a sovereign State.”  

On Monday, September 12th 2011, The International Court of Justice at The Hague began hearing arguments from Germany and Italy, which is seeking damages from Germany for crimes committed by Nazis during World War II.

One day, perhaps, there will be no memories, just as visitors to Civitella who look at the remains of the Lombard Castle will have no consciousness of the brutalities brought to Italy by the Swabian overlords.    

As things are Civitella is a place of peace – or so it seems.  The town rests atop the hill, above the valley of traffic and trains, its red tiles glowing in the sun.  Its inhabitants are kind and welcoming and daily life goes on.  As ‘torto78’ wrote on January 27th 2009 when uploading the archive footage of the destruction of Civitella and its inhabitants, “I want to share this video not to intensify the rancour but to give evidence to brutality and madness of EVERY war. Everywhere and everytime.....

I sit for a few moments in the chapel of the martyrdom in Canterbury Cathedral, a place reserved for silent prayer.  My thoughts focus on my dad, just a year since he died.  Although he had survived 88 years, I think of him in Italy in 1944.  After a winter in Naples he was unexpectedly landed at Anzio, and then, after the fall of Rome in June he progressed north and spent his 21st birthday on a 3-ton truck in Tuscany, not far from Civitella.  That dull, overcast summer must have been fly-blown with the unknown: the Germans on the back foot; the skies criss-crossed by allied aircraft, strafing and bombing almost at will (the Luftwaffe had been withdrawn by then), the allied drive forward temporarily unstoppable, but nothing certain.  Victory was certainly not in sight, and the Italian people, deprived and confused, were torn apart like their villages by passing and seemingly interminable warfare.  I wonder where he was exactly on the morning of June 29th, the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul (his name was Peter; he christened me Paul) when the first shots ripped through the people of Civitella. 

My thoughts fly up, but my soul remains below.  The connection between the murder in the cathedral and the deaths of hundreds of Italians in 1944 may be stretched, like the Via Francigena, but I cannot help feel the common thread of outrage.  The excuse of obeying orders, the justification of man’s violent inhumanity – these wrongs surround and confuse me.  I am startled by a vexed official, with a tetchy voice, telling me that this chapel is reserved for prayer; it is not for visitors.  Perhaps it is my attire, perhaps my backpack, perhaps my camera.  I look at his sash of rank; catch his officious eye.  For a moment I feel like reacting. But then, in the gloom, with half a mind in the past, I slowly lay down my bayonet…..


[1] “In order not to forget this tragic and sad event, which changed the daily life of this people, the Organizing Committee with population and local government has organized a ”Memory Room”. They want to remember the mistakes and the horrors of all wars to the future generations with the hope to propagate a peace message” – from http://testx1.ar-tel.it/comune.civitella-in-val-di-chiana.ar.it/default.asp?cnt_id=752&cnt_idpadre=737&tipodoc=1

[2] Civitella 18th June 1944 – Euthanasia of a Date.

[3] Sunday, 18 June 1944: USAAF Chronology: MTO Tactical Operations (12th AF): In Italy, bad weather grounds medium and light bombers; fighter-bombers and fighters are restricted to patrols, mainly over the Piombino area and island of Elba, during which several gun positions, boats, and barges are hit; 111th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, XII Tactical Air Command, moves from Galera to Voltone with F-6s; and 525th Fighter Squadron, 86th Fighter Group, moves from Ciampino to Orbetello with P-47s. 

[4] Working men’s club – really the village bar.

[5] A nine minute film of the memorial to these people can be seen on youtube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hpqJuOpQ6-M&feature=player_detailpage


For information regarding Thomas Beckett:

The starting point was Don Francesco Sensini’s book “Civitella 18 Giugno 1944 – Eutanasia di una data,” to which I hope I have been faithful.

I also found James Hollland’s, “Italy’s Sorrow – A Year of War, 1944-45,” inspirational.

Similarly the film, “L’Uomo che verrà” by Giorgio Diritti, Italia 2009, moved me immensely.

I am indebted to many websites for information, most particularly the official website of the Comune of Civitella in Val di Chiana:

Richard Paul Gibbs

20th November 2011


  1. Hi it's Keith again, not sure if my message got through but the book is now listed on Amazon for publication on July 21st, The Road to Civitella 1944. The Captain the Chaplain and the massacre.
    It would be great if I could phone you if you are happy to give me your number. I think you will be fascinated. The 70th anniversary two years ago was incredible. The German foreign Minister met the survivors many of whom remember my Dad!!