War in Val d’Orcia by Iris Origo

A few months ago, I wrote about A Chill in the Air, a series of diary entries by the British-born writer and biographer Iris Origo. It’s a truly fascinating book, a remarkable record of developments leading up to Italy’s entry into the Second World War, written from La Foce, the Origos’ Tuscan estate. A Chill covers the period from March 1939 to July 1940, ending with the birth of the couple’s second child, Benedetta. Consequently, Origo was too busy to write for a couple of years; nevertheless, she returned to the task in January 1943, documenting events for a further eighteen months. These are the diary entries I’ll be covering here, published as War in Val d’Orcia, An Italian War Diary, 1943 – 1944.

There is more about Orgio’s background in my earlier review, but suffice it to say that by the outbreak of war, there are fifty-seven farms on La Foce, overseen and supported by Iris and her husband, Antonio, who are generous to a fault.

Italy’s position in the war is complex, to say the least. As Virginia Nicholson notes in her introduction to the NYRB Classics edition, Mussolini’s Fascist government initially aligns itself with Germany; however, by 1943, Fascism in Italy is becoming ‘a spent force’ with Il Duce losing his grip over the nation. The Allies are beginning to drive the Germans out of Italy, moving forward from the south while simultaneously bombing German strongholds, such as Genoa, Bologna and Turin in the north. Consequently, Italy finds itself under attack on multiple fronts, from bombings by the Allies to ravages by the Germans.

Irrespective of the perils and uncertainties of the family’s personal situation, Origo remains remarkably clear-eyed in her analysis of the political climate in Italy, highlighting the terrible dilemma facing the country by the summer of 1943.

Bombing all over Italy: Genoa, Bologna, Naples, Parma, Foggia. Simultaneously a broadcast of Churchill and Roosevelt to the Italian people urges them to overthrow the Fascist regime, and offers them ‘an honourable capitulation’ and ‘a respected place among the free peoples of Europe’. Germany, says the message, has betrayed the Italian people: Mussolini and Fascism have betrayed them. If they do not capitulate, Italy will be destroyed. It is for the Italians to decide whether they will die for Mussolini and Hitler or live for peace and liberty. (p. 65)

We sense the author’s frustration when the King of Italy and his Marshall, Badoglio, fail to seize the opportunity to make peace with the Allies in July ‘43, effectively prolonging the conflict and loss of life as the country tears itself apart.

Moreover, she outlines the regional variations in government across the country – broadly speaking, the Germans in the north and the Allies in the south, albeit with various local and regional loyalties complicating the mix. Sympathies are divided across the Italian population, ranging from fervent anti-Fascists looking to join the Allies, to those less willing to support either side (particularly when they feel betrayed by the King and Badoglio’s fecklessness). Even among those who oppose the Fascists, there are differing views on how best to achieve a peaceful resolution, with some advocating decisive action while others favour a more passive form of endurance. In addition, there are great swathes of Italians who are just trying to keep their heads downs in the hope of surviving. These are the ‘tira a campare’ (referred to as the ‘just rubs along’) – weary, suspicious and deeply disillusioned, these individuals are fully aware that more suffering lies ahead, their main aims being self-protection and the preservation of life.

Something that comes through so strongly here is the generosity of the Italian people, the numerous acts of bravery, compassion and selflessness that occur on a daily basis, frequently at great personal risk and expense to the Italians themselves. Numerous humanitarian actions and sacrifices are documented in these diaries – too many to mention here, but they are genuinely humbling to read.

Much has been said in these times (and not least by the Italians themselves) about Italian cowardice and Italian treachery. But here is a man (and there are hundreds of others like him) who has run the risk of being shot, who has shared his family’s food to the last crumb, and who has lodged, clothed and protected four strangers for over three months—and who now proposes continuing to do so, while perfectly aware of all the risks that he is running. What is this, if not courage and loyalty? (p. 196)

The Origos, for their part, set a heroic example in this respect, taking in twenty-three refugee children in early 1943 following the bombings in Genoa and Turin. Food, clothing and other essential supplies are in perilously short supply, but somehow they manage to get by through a combination of grit, resourcefulness and determination. Day after day, the Origos selflessly help a seemingly endless stream of fugitives, partisans, evacuees, Italian soldiers and Allied POWs who call at the estate, providing food, clothes, shelter, medical support and directions, depending on individuals’ needs.

Two other fugitives, Italian airmen from Albania—one suffering from bronchitis—who have already been captured twice by the Germans and have now walked down from Vincenza. They have given up all hope of getting through the lines, and beg to be allowed to stay on here and work, until the Germans retreat. We find a place for them at one of our farms. (p. 158)

In many instances, they help these people to lie low in the nearby woods (by May 1944, there are 200 men hiding out with the Origos’ support!), often at great risk to themselves as the punishments for shielding partisans or Allied POWs become increasingly severe. Meanwhile, reprisals for attacks on German forces continue to erupt across Italy, adding another element of threat to an already volatile situation. 

At Livorno the German O.C. has taken fifty hostages, in reprisal for attacks upon German soldiers, and has issued a proclamation announcing that if there is any further trouble, five of them will immediately be shot and the whole population of the suburbs of Livorno will be evacuated without notice. (p. 122)

Origo is particularly adept at capturing the everyday rhythms of a country at war, the peculiar mix of frustration, confusion, uncertainty, anxiety, boredom, exhaustion, bravery and compassion. Alongside the immediate dangers, Iris and Antonio must also grapple with various long-term worries and uncertainties. What will life be like when the war is over? Will there be enough money to survive? What sort of world will they be raising their children in, and how will they cope? Can peace and harmony ever be restored in a divided country and a fractured Europe?

By June 1944, the Germans have taken over La Foce, forcing the Origos and the children in their care to take shelter in the estate’s cellar. With the Allies on their way but still tantalisingly out of reach, the Origos and their charges (a group of 60 in total) are forced to leave for Montepulciano, making the journey on foot while trying to shelter from the conflict. Thankfully they arrive safely, albeit exhausted from the flight, both physically and mentally.

This remarkable diary ends on a hopeful note with the liberation of La Foce when the Allies finally make it to Tuscany a week or two after the Origos’ departure. Unsurprisingly, there is much rebuilding to be done when the Origos return to their estate, but Iris remains firmly optimistic for the future.

It’s an astonishing end to a frankly astonishing account of the war from one woman’s perspective. There is so much humanity, generosity and compassion within these pages, it’s heartening to see. Like many other accounts of war, Origo’s diaries are a testament to the folly of conflict and the strength of those who resist it. Highly recommended to any reader with an interest in this crucial period of history.

12 thoughts on “War in Val d’Orcia by Iris Origo

  1. bookbii

    This sounds excellent, a really fascinating insight into the realities of war from a perspective we don’t often get to see. Excellent review. It sounds a very powerful and absorbing read.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely. It was fascinating to learn more about the various complexities surrounding Italy’s involvement in the war…and while Origo’s family hailed from England and America, she definitely considered Italy to be her adopted home.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review Jacqui and this does sound like a stunning read. I particularly like the fact that as well as recording daily life in such difficult circumstances, she also gives that bigger picture of the background to the conflict. I’m definitely keen to read these if they pass my way!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think her connections to political and diplomatic circles enable Origo to put day-to-day events into that broader context. She’s also very good at drawing the distinction between verified reports (e.g. from BBC radio bulletins) and hearsay / rumours, which really helps when you’re reading the text.

  3. Julé Cunningham

    Your description in both reviews of the way Iris Origo wrote about Italy gives me the impression that her outsider’s eye plus the knowledge of living in it, made her perceptions of what was happening even stronger. And of course her insider’s view because of the contacts she and her husband had adds another layer. What an amazing life and woman Origo was, thank goodness she took a little time (amzing in itself), to document those years.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s a great way of expressing it, Jule. She combined the objectivity of an independent observer with the understanding of resident/inhabitant, which enabled her to take a unique view of events. As you say, it must have been so hard for her to find the time to document these developments so eloquently. And she knew she was taking a risk by keeping any sort of diary, especially once the Germans got to La Foce…

  4. heavenali

    This sounds fascinating, covering a relatively short period of time, yet what a politically charged and tumultuous period. It’s good to hear that those acts of generosity and compassion are acknowledged and celebrated.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I learned a lot! I some respects, we’re used to seeing reports of the war from a British PoV (or a German one), but I can’t think of many other books that look at events from the Italian perspective…

  5. Liz Dexter

    This sounds absolutely fascinating. It’s not a part of history I know much about and diaries almost always help us to understand things, don’t they.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely. It’s the combination of the personal and the political (which you usually get in this type of diary) that really brings the history to life.

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