March 23

This Day in History

World War II

Mar 23, 1944:

Germans slaughter Italian civilians

On this day, German occupiers shoot more than 300 Italian civilians as a reprisal for an Italian partisan attack on an SS unit.

Since the Italian surrender in the summer of 1943, German troops had occupied wider swaths of the peninsula to prevent the Allies from using Italy as a base of operations against German strongholds elsewhere, such as the Balkans. An Allied occupation of Italy would also put into their hands Italian airbases, further threatening German air power.

Italian partisans (antifascist guerrilla fighters) aided the Allied battle against the Germans. The Italian Resistance had been fighting underground against the fascist government of Mussolini long before its surrender, and now it fought against German fascism. The main weapon of a guerrilla, defined roughly as a member of a small-scale "irregular" fighting force that relies on limited and quick engagements of a conventional fighting force, is sabotage. Aside from killing enemy soldiers, the destruction of communication lines, transportation centers, and supply lines are essential guerrilla tactics.

On March 23, 1944, Italian partisans operating in Rome threw a bomb at an SS unit, killing 33 soldiers. The very next day, the Germans rounded up 335 Italian civilians and took them to the Adeatine caves. They were all shot dead as revenge for the SS soldiers. Of the civilian victims, 253 were Catholic, 70 were Jewish and the remaining 12 were unidentified.

Despite such setbacks, the partisans proved extremely effective in aiding the Allies; by the summer of 1944, resistance fighters had immobilized eight of the 26 German divisions in northern Italy. By war's end, Italian guerrillas controlled Venice, Milan, and Genoa, but at considerable cost. All told, the Resistance lost some 50,000 fighters-but won its republic.

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