World War II massacre in Cephalonia

Greek historians usually describe the dramatic events that occurred in Cephalonia 60 years ago this month under the heading of the «German-Italian conflict,» giving the impression that the islanders, occupied first by the Italians and then the Germans, were mere bystanders in the clash between the two occupying armies. A book by Kosmetos P. Fokas-Kosmetatos under this title has been published by Gerasimos Apostolatos. In contrast, the historian Spyros D. Loukatos, in the second of three volumes on the wartime occupation of Cephalonia and Ithaca, uses the term «Italian-German (rather than Kosmetatos’s «German-Italian») conflict,» but adds to his title «and the Part Played by the National Liberation Organizations,» taking the approach that the locals were active participants rather than onlookers in resistance directed against the new conquerors, the Germans. Across the Adriatic, the events are referred to as the «massacre in Cephalonia,» a title adopted by Vangelis Sakkatos in his narration of the events as well as by this writer, reflecting the fact that the number of Italian soldiers either executed or lost at sea amounted, according to some estimates, to 9,600. The massacre was characterized by the Nuremberg courts as a war crime, and though recent experience should make us wary of court rulings by the victors, there is no doubt of the criminal nature of what was perpetrated by the forces of General Hubert Lanz. Naturally, it was not only the German forces that committed war crimes. Greeks are well aware of that, as are the Italians, after the bombing of Rome in 1943, and the Germans themselves after the bombing of Dresden in 1945 and the forced uprooting of 16.5 million ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe. The use of the word «slaughter» does not mean that those who use the word «conflict» are unaware that any war crime was committed. Seganti’s role Vittorio Seganti arrived on Cephalonia on July 2, 1943, as the Allies were approaching Italy and the temporary gains from its military campaigns – including Cephalonia – were at risk. Meanwhile, the political climate in Rome had deteriorated and the fall of Mussolini (which came on July 25), was already being prepared by those who did not want any part in the defeat. Aware of these problems, Seganti assumed control of civil affairs on the island, reporting to Pietro Parini of the General Directorate of Civil Affairs in the Ionian Islands, based on Corfu. Following the massacre of the Italians on Cephalonia, Seganti returned by way of Berlin, under German protection, to German-occupied Rome, where he filed his report, now translated into Greek by Foteini Zervou. The report was for his new superior, Serafino Mazzolini, the Foreign Ministry general secretary in the Repubblica Sociale Italiana, the state Mussolini founded in Northern Italy in 1943, supported and controlled by the Germans. The ultimate recipient of the report was of course the foreign minister, Mussolini himself. The new civil administrator’s first impression, or rather prior knowledge, of the island, was of the longstanding conflict between the Italian military and civil administration. This was clear from a decree issued by Mussolini in 1941 setting out the powers of the Ionian Civil Administrator, who was responsible to the Supreme Military Occupation Force, and who also had to communicate directly with the Foreign Ministry regarding the execution of his powers. Thanks to Davide Rodogno’s book «Il Nuovo Ordine Mediterraneo» (The New Mediterranean Order), recently published in Italy, we now know that there was also conflict among Italian authorities in other territories they occupied. Of course, such conflicts are common in history. What is important here is that in Cephalonia this discord, as Seganti calls it, naturally contributed to some extent to the confusion among the Italian authorities during the crucial days before the massacre, although the events occurred mainly in the barracks and not in the office of the «console.» But the main cause of the confusion – apart from the acute political disputes – were the conflicting orders sent to the Acqui Brigade from the Italian military leadership in Brindisi and Athens, but that is another story. Although Seganti notes that it was General Antonio Gandin himself, head of the Acqui Brigade, who had called for German backup forces in Cephalonia to avert an Allied landing, he writes that Gandin publicly declared that the British would never set foot on the island. Even after talking to him after Mussolini’s fall from power on July 25, Seganti reports that «Gandin’s stance does not permit me to assume that he was or could have been the agent of a betrayal,» that is, that he would have resisted the Germans. We could assume, or rather conclude – irrespective of the term «betrayal» – that Seganti was being sincere at this point. Gandin, a law-abiding officer, would naturally have taken precautions against the possibility of the British landing on the island but he had no reason, before the announcement of Italy’s surrender of September 8, to give the impression that he would resist the Germans. His major dilemma would have come after September 8. Seganti goes on to relate the events that occurred in Cephalonia between July 25 and September 8, 1943. «…On the evening of July 25, Captain (Giovanni Maria) Gasco, in charge of the carabinieri (…) began in my presence to make inappropriate comments and express his joy at the fall of fascism. Then nearly all the fascists removed their insignia, forcing me to make strong reprimands…» The reference to «nearly all the fascists» says it all, not only regarding the climate prevailing at the time of Mussolini’s fall, but above all about the state of mind that led to the dramatic decision by the Acqui officers to resist the Germans. «…The situation continued to worsen, despite my continued appeals for dignified behavior, particularly before the Greek population of the island,» continued Seganti, obviously referring to the Italians and Cephalonians’ joint celebrations and perhaps, if these had come to his notice, contacts with members of resistance organizations. «…Day by day, demonstrations (by Italians) against fascism became a regular occurrence, with increasing boldness. (…) My threats of sanctions against the more fanatical among them fell on deaf ears,» he continued. Although Italy was still fighting on the side of Germany, a core of disobedience had emerged among Italian officers, such as Amos Pampaloni, Renzo Apollonio, Mario Romagnoli and Mario Mastrangelo, who with the political and to some extent operational support of the Greek national liberation organizations, forced Gandin to make the crucial decision to resist the Germans. Nevertheless, both Gandin and his officers knew, or could imagine, the strength and efficiency of the German Luftwaffe, on which the outcome of the battle for Cephalonia eventually rested. It was not only the Italian military that was having problems on the island: During the occupation, Rome implemented a de facto policy of annexation of the Ionian Islands since Berlin had postponed a de jure decision on the issue until after the war. To that end, it had cut off administrative and economic contacts between the Ionian Islands and the Greek State and had introduced the Ionian drachma as currency. This political structure began to crumble just a few days before the Italian surrender; its final collapse came after the Germans took control. As Seganti reports, a few days before September 8, General Mario Marghinotti, commander of Italy’s Eighth Army, based in Agrinio, arrived in Argostoli and met with the effectively powerless Greek prefect Dellaportas. Seganti made sure that he was present at the meeting as he had previously rejected a demand by Dellaportas to take up a collection to pay off the sentences of 50 prisoners who had blown up 50 trams in Athens. Seganti wanted to avert any decision being taken by an Italian officer based on mainland Greece. Although Seganti believed that Dellaportas’s demand was so the Cephalonians could «show that the Ionian Islands identified politically with Greece,» Marghinotti said that it was up to him to decide «because the Acqui division, barracked in Cephalonia, was answerable to the Eighth Army, based in Agrinio, on the Greek mainland.» It is clear that General Marghinotti, within the framework of the leading role the Italian military had assumed in Pietro Badoglio’s Italy, but also within the framework of trying to throw off the burdens imposed by Mussolini’s policies, effectively reversed (Italy’s) policy of gradually incorporating the Ionian Islands into Italy. This incident, which Seganti recorded as being of major importance, is another indication of the climate of disunity that prevailed in the Italian camp just before the fatal confrontation. Brief reference Seganti did not have first-hand experience in the conflict. After failing to secure a means of escape from Cephalonia and his defection from the Italian officers in command, he took refuge in the 37th Military Hospital near Argostoli on September 14. But he no doubt saw the conflict and obviously heard about it. «On (September) 16, Stukas appeared in the sky over Cephalonia and emptied their cargo of bombs on our positions and our troops. After two days’ of incessant bombardment, the entire brigade was completely disoriented. Even our artillery was silent during the day, so as not to reveal its precise position to the enemy.» Note Seganti’s reference to «our troops» and the «enemy,» which show at least a mental identification with those fighting the Germans, who were the Italian allies and the commanders of his superior, to whom the report was addressed. Nevertheless, since he was politically opposed to the decision to resist, he did not cease in his efforts to try and persuade his compatriots, attempting to refute an proclamation by General Gandin on September 19 that the Soviet armies had reached Odessa and Kiev. The truth is that while at that time the German troops were withdrawing to the eastern front, the Red Army had not yet recaptured Odessa or Kiev. Seganti’s stance, coming at such an advanced stage of the conflict, is indicative of the tragedy being played out in Cephalonia and confirms the pre-existing climate of confusion. However, there was no confusion in the minds of those who decided from the outset to resist. As for the outcome of the tragedy, Seganti was laconic in his description, according it only a few lines in a 6,000-word text. After noting that the Germans had been ordered to take no prisoners, he wrote: «Thus entire army units were machine-gunned and the execution of the entire division command ordered. Only about 40 officers managed to escape the slaughter.» As for Seganti himself, his efforts to save two of the officers, Federico Filippini and Gofferdo Fraticelli were unsuccessful. «Eccidio» – massacre, a significant word in the pages of modern European history but by no means the only one. Greeks, Italians, Germans and other Europeans have words in their languages that must be remembered if they are to avoid writing them once more in the pages of their future joint European history. (1) Based on a lecture given on August 31, 2003 at the Kourkoumelata Cultural Center, organized by the George and Marie Vergotis Foundation.